Marcus Sammuelsson finds his soul in Harlem with 'Red Rooster Cookbook'

Read this cookbook: “The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem” by Marcus Samuelsson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $37.50).

By Wendell Brock

Marcus Samuelsson’s story plays like a classic American blues song.

Born into poverty in Ethiopia, orphaned as a toddler, adopted and raised by Swedish parents, he went on to cook the Obamas’ first state dinner at the White House. This after becoming the youngest chef ever to earn three stars from The New York Times (for his cooking at Aquavit), this after picking up a James Beard Award for best chef in Manhattan.

A few years ago, Samuelsson opened Red Rooster in his New York neighborhood, and for a boy who grew up on James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone and other black artists his Swedish father turned him on to, it was like finding his home. “Harlem.” he writes. “It was the only place I ever lived where I felt both invisible and noticed.” This made him happy, and the cooking he turned out at the Rooster – largely Southern soul food, injected with multicultural piquancy and panache – made his customers happy, too.

Flip through these recipes, and you’ll understand.

I’m always fascinated with how the foodways of the African diaspora tell a familiar tale wherever they take hold, be it Savannah or Salvador da Bahia. Samuelsson’s journey brings that message home, powerfully. His food is transformative, and it looks crazy delicious on the page.

Shoebox Ham (a nod to Jim Crow-era train travel) is brined, rubbed with spices and charred black. Fried Yardbird is marinated in coconut milk and buttermilk, then cooked to an audacious Harlem crisp in peanut oil. Catfish is pan-fried and topped with pecans, raisins, capers, apples, all burnished brown in soy sauce.

Samuelsson has reawakened American soul food to a bright, lovely, Democratic tune. It is both uniquely his, and ours for the taking. The music he swings to was there in his soul all along. It just took Harlem to coax it out. “The Red Rooster Cookbook” is sexy, hot and strutting with flavor.


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